By Caitlin Kelly
In our time, we try to be a bit slick. I think there’s value in the roughness of things
–— Marcel Wanders, contemporary Dutch designer
Are you familiar with the Japanese esthetic ideal of wabi-sabi?
Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.
Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It’s a richly mellow beauty that’s striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time-Katherine Hepburn versus Marilyn Monroe. For the Japanese, it’s the difference between kirei-merely “pretty”-and omoshiroi, the interestingness that kicks something into the realm of beautiful.
An antiques term for the wear and tear you find on old silver or wood is patina.
All these evidences of aging and wear can ruin the monetary value of an object, although — depending on your budget and the item’s rarity — much can be repaired by conservationists.
The Japanese tradition of kintsugi is described well here on this blog, with some lovely photos of cracked pottery repaired with gold.
I found this early 20th-century (late 19th?) jam pot in a small town in France at an antiques shop. Felix Potin still exists today as a major grocery store chain in France.
Everywhere I go, I seek out things with an overlay of use. I find them in thrift and consignment shops, in antique stores and flea markets, at auction and outdoors fairs. I’ll never be the person living in a super-modern, all-glass/plastic/marble/metal home. I want to see and feel the evidence of the people who made things and who owned and enjoyed them before me.
Here are some items I’ve acquired over the years precisely because their patina, roughness or wabi-sabi add to their beauty for me:
This small green-painted chair, with a rush seat, probably mid 19th century, is so cracked the finish is now called “alligatored.” I found it at a country auction in Nova Scotia in the mid 1980s; I bought four of them for $200.
I can’t remember where I found this oval, battered wooden stool, which has three wooden legs. I’m guessing it might have been a milking stool, as it’s so low and very comfortable. We use it as a table in the bathroom.
I found this old mixing bowl at a small-town Ontario auction for about $10. It’s the perfect size for popcorn!
This is the weathered gilt frame for a beveled mirror, itself with some discoloration from age, I found in New York City in an antiques shop for $300.
Do you like or prefer old things?